What do we actually know about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370?

Not a lot. And probably less than you think.

Samsul Said/Reuters
A ground staff works near a Malaysia Airlines aircraft at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, March 18, 2014.

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is a horrible puzzler. Big jets like the Beijing-bound Boeing 777-200ER that vanished 10 days ago just don't disappear. And they certainly don't disappear while cruising over the ocean in fine weather.

Yet this one has. The human mind doesn't like mysteries and tries to figure them out. But in the absence of reasonable answers and solid information to analyze, folks grasp at outlandish straws, scraps of claims and confused wonderings to create elaborate and improbable theories.

In the case of Flight 370, Malaysian officials have provided a string of conflicting and unclear statements to reporters, both on and off the record. All we know for sure is that the plane is missing. And much of what we've been led to believe is known about the flight isn't certain.

Here's a rundown about the gaps in our knowledge that tries to do Donald Rumsfeld proud.


The flight left Kuala Lumpur at 12:41 a.m. on the morning of March 8 with 239 passengers and crew aboard. It was scheduled to arrive after 5-1/2 hours. Zaharie Ahmad Shah was the captain and was at the controls, along with his young first officer Fariq Abdul Hamid. Some of the people onboard the flight were using stolen passports – not that unusual for criminals or people trying to migrate undetected. 

Subsequent examination of the passenger manifest has turned up no evidence made public that any of the passengers or crew were involved with militant groups. The last communication with the cockpit was at 1:19 a.m. (someone said "all right, good night"), and the plane's transponder stopped working at 1:21 a.m.

Known unknowns

There are a lot of these. Malaysian officials are fond of using qualifiers like "appears" or "may have" or "indications are." So it appears that the plane deliberately left its scheduled flight path around 1:19 a.m.

How and why? We don't know.

There has also been a lot of anonymous quotes from Malaysian and foreign officials. For instance, from a CNN story yesterday: "U.S. intelligence officials are leaning toward the theory that 'those in the cockpit' – the captain and co-pilot – were responsible for the mysterious disappearance, a U.S. official with direct knowledge of the latest thinking told CNN."

Why are they leaning that way? We aren't really told.

Informed speculation is a good thing to have in intelligence analysts, who operate in a world of imperfect information and probabilities. All possibilities should be considered – but not necessarily shared with the press in the absence of actual knowledge. Early speculation on the origins of and motivations behind terrorist attacks and air disasters is often wrong. 

Take this Bloomberg story from last Friday (emphasis mine): "The last satellite transmission from a Malaysian airliner missing for a week has been traced to the Indian Ocean off Australia, far from where searches have taken place, according to a person familiar with the analysis." That claim has vanished from discussion, and doesn't line up with more recent claims made by both named and unnamed officials.

Or this New York Times story yesterday, citing "senior American officials," says that the plane's flight path was altered shortly after takeoff, and that this was accomplished by entering a code into an automated navigation system. How could this be known? The computerized navigation system, called a Flight Management System, fed this data to the onboard Aircraft Communications and Reporting System (ACARS), which in turn transmitted information of the change to a computer on the ground.

If true, it's suggestive of a knowledgeable pilot being at the controls, since using the system is far more complicated than manually changing the flight path.

But what does that mean? It could mean a rogue pilot, or a capable hijacker. Or a captain responding to a dire mechanical problem on board by diverting towards a safe and close landing point. And then, tragically, not making it before the plane failed or those at the controls were overcome by smoke. We just don't know.

Then there is the ACARS. Over the weekend it was reported, via Malaysian officials, that the system was "switched off" or "disabled" at 1:07 a.m., 12 minutes before the final "good night" message from the cockpit. Highly suspicious, right?

Or maybe not. It turns out there's no evidence that this ever happened, as Malaysian Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari clarified yesterday. He says the system's last transmission was indeed at 1:07 a.m. – but there's no evidence that it was "switched off" by human hands. The system was scheduled to ping again at 1:37 a.m., and it didn't.

Did it stop pinging because it was switched off by hijackers? Or because the plane had exploded or crashed, or a fire on board had damaged some systems but not others? Once again we simply don't know.

Is the global media approaching this puzzle cautiously and judiciously, so as to reach reasonable conclusions? In general, no. Consider this Daily Telegraph headline from the weekend: "Pilot's 'calm' last words said after plane seized." The plane was "seized" and the pilot was "calm" about this. Perhaps. But the Telegraph has no evidence of that.

That doesn't stop the author from speculating wildly, of course: "It implies the captain, one of Malaysia Airlines' most experienced pilots, was either speaking under duress after terrorists had seized control of his plane, or as its hijacker."

Or perhaps, the simplest answer usually being the correct one, the plane crashed and hasn't been found yet.

There have also been claims from the Malaysian government that the plane was tracked by satellite heading northwest in the Andaman Sea as late as 2:15 a.m., and that the plane's signal was picked up by a satellite over the Indian Ocean at 8:15 a.m. – though the nature of that contact is highly imprecise. If the satellite did pick up Flight 370, all it can show is the plane was somewhere along a northwestern arc across Asia stretching nearly to the Caspian Sea. Or it was somewhere along a southwesterly arc stretching thousands of miles into the Indian Ocean. 

But do we really "know" any of this? Given the way Malaysian authorities have handled this crisis, I am far from convinced. 

Unknown unknowns

This is the easiest, the simplest, and the saddest. We don't know what happened to Flight 370 and to its passengers and crew. There is of course lots of "information" out there about the plane. Good information, bad information, and indifferent information.

But information is not knowledge.

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